When I first became interested in community organizing, I went to East New York to visit the
Nehemiah Houses. East New York was once described as the place where civilization went to die. All I knew about the
Nehemiah Houses was that they were designed not so much for the residents of the community as with them. I did not know what to expect but I found lovely one family bungalows with meticulously kept lawns. Modest and unassuming but they radiated pride of ownership. When I returned to my rectory in Bed-Sty I looked out my window to an apartment house financed by Jackie Robinson and designed by professional architects from the finest materials a few decades before the
Nehemiah Houses. They had by then deteriorated to the point that I had to ask for a guard to bring me in and out when I went on communion calls. I could not understand the difference but, as we see today, John the Baptist could have explained it to me.
John went out into the desert near the Jordan river, a place as foreign to the elites of the day as East New York was in ours. There were both theological and practical reasons for this.
Theologically, the desert is where the Hebrew Nation was formed. For 40 years the LORD taught the people who he wanted them to be. When they were ready, they were led across the Jordan river into the promised land. Let us remember that it was not Moses who led them but Joshua his successor. Joshua is Jesus in Hebrew.
John is telling his contemporaries that they have lost their way and they must be re-fomed as a people. They need to repent – change the direction of their lives, The Kingdom was a hand – the rule of the LORD was to begin and repentance was the price of admission
John was clear that he was to form them but another Joshua – Jesus – would lead them.
Mark uses language from Isaiah to describe John’s role. This is more fully developed in the parish commentary on the website. In this and several other ways John brings together many aspects of Jewish thought and history to show that the LORD will be powerfully intervening in human history and it will be soon.
This is important but the “optics” might be even more powerful.
John is not preaching in Jerusalem, or a smart suburban synagogue, nor even on a lovely Judean mountain. To hear his preaching and receive his Baptism it was necessary to make the long trip to the Jordan River. And who was he? Luke tells us that he is the son of a minor priest. Nor is he a scholar. He does not engage in a learned discussion on the law.
He is an unimportant person on the margins of society in every sense of the word. Yet it is from him that the kingdom will begin, and the people had to travel to the boondocks to find him.
This is Jesus’ pattern in history. When the Roman Empire fell learning could only be found in monasteries at the edges of the world. When the church had completely lost its way in the middle ages St Francis found the way back in the poor, the human periphery. Centuries later our own Patron St Charles Borromeo found his true vocation feeding the sick and hungry during a plague distributing let us recall, both the Eucharist and soup. True reform is from the periphery to the center, from the outside in.
Pope Francis has called us to a new understanding of this reality. He was ordained after the Second Vatican council which sought to reform the church. Despite great intentions, superb scholarship, and some significant successes, it did not penetrate as deeply as many expected, Pope Francis believes that it was because it was imposed not only from the top down but from the inside out. His insight for over a half century has been to take the religious experiences of common people seriously and build on that. This was one of the reasons why he was exiled to the backcountry of Argentina and was without an assignment for 2 years. The learned and the clever found him an embarrassment and a hindrance in making South Americans into northern Europeans.
Yet the creativity of the Church went the other direction from South America to Rome. Many of the things we might think of as innovations of Pope Francis are his applications of the South American church to the entire world.
This is not only useful for the universal church but for St Charels Borromeo Parish. Covid has thrust us into the desert. Things will not return to normal and not return at all unless we use this time for reform.
This reform will be a three-legged stool. It will be built on the Eucharist and the worship connected to it. It will require a love of the word of God and Religious formation that flows from it and it will require an encounter with the poor.
You will find in the emails and website information about all these areas, but I wish to make one point about engagement with the poor. This must be a true encounter: a meeting of equal human beings. It is not what we can do for people with financial needs; but what we can do together. If you do not think that you can learn from poor people, please stay home. You will just be in the way,
As in the days of John the Baptist understanding where God wants us to go and how he will lead us requires leaving our usual spaces and moving to the periphery. This should not be sanitized as leaving our comfort zone: the call is to go somewhere and do something
The people, including the refined and gentle elite of Jerusalem who went out to the desert to see St John made the first steps for their new normal. We can meet Jesus this Christmas in a new and surprising way if this Advent we find him in new and surprising people.